Tree of Smoke–Denis Johnson

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I finished Denis Johnson’s sprawling Vietnam War epic Tree of Smoke the same weekend that I finished James Joyce’s Ulysses. I managed to do this thanks to BBC America’s fantastic audio book version of Tree of Smoke, read by Will Patton–there’s simply no other way I would’ve managed to read both books. After finishing Tree of Smoke, that special depression reserved for only the best of books set in (you know that feeling–where the book you looked forward to every day is now over, and you feel a little sad and want more). I immediately started listening to it again (after I finished Ulysses I simply felt exhausted–Molly Bloom’s infamous monologue was fantastic (and sexy!), and I read it in one sitting, but still…the book inspires a special fatigue. More on all of this in a future post. I only bring the two up together as they are both very long books I finished this weekend; without pretense or shame, I attest that I enjoyed Johnson’s book over Joyce’s).

I plan to buy and reread (not sure if reread is the right verb) Tree of Smoke as soon as soon as it comes out in paperback. For now, here’s a very brief review: go buy this book and read it immediately. If you don’t have time to read it, get the 18-disc, 24 hour audiobook. Will Patton’s reading is astounding. He manages to meet and express the expansive range of voices and viewpoints in Johnson’s novel–newbie CIA spooks, double agents, overwhelmed relief workers, nihilist GIs, zealous field operatives, and more–in a way that brings the appropriate depth and personality to each character without ever being obtrusive or obnoxious (as can sometimes happen with audiobooks). Patton’s reading is on par with the best audiobook readings I’ve ever heard, and those of you who frequently listen to audiobooks know the difference this can make. He seems to fully appreciate the scope and magnitude of Johnson’s piece on Vietnam (sidenote: Patton played a bit-part in the underrated and overlooked 1999 film adaptation of Johnson’s novel-in-stories collection, Jesus’ Son).

But I’m not really doing justice to Johnson’s novel here. To call it a Vietnam war novel is like calling Prince a simple R&B artist–a facile description that doesn’t capture the subject. To be sure, it is a Vietnam war novel, but one that self-consciously riffs off of both The Ugly American and The Quiet American–with shades of Apocalypse Now to boot. At the same time, Johnson deftly injects mythology and philosophy directly into his character’s voices, into their conversations and letters, into the books they read and the papers they write, without ever once clumsily forcing a theme or motif. Unlike lesser writers, Johnson never slaps the reader in the face with all his clever ideas. Instead, all his clever ideas–meditations on colonialism, war, the minotaur myth, self-sacrifice, religion, data and analysis, love and betrayal–are part of an enthralling plot propelled by the most realistic dialog I’ve heard in a long, long time. If a better book is published in 2007, please let me know. Highly highly highly recommended.

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6 thoughts on “Tree of Smoke–Denis Johnson”

  1. […] My initial review of Tree of Smoke last year was really a review of Will Patton’s masterful audio-recording of the novel (I was reading Ulysses for graduate school at the time and simply did not have the time to read both). I loved the experience; Patton did a great job, and I found myself wholly addicted to the narrative. When the advance copy of Tree showed up in the mail earlier this week, I immediately re-read the coda of the book in a single sitting. I would say the measure of a great narrative is not its core, its climax, or its beginning, but how well the conclusion is able to deliver the promises established throughout the book. Tree of Smoke delivers, and its ending continues to haunt the reader well after the book has been set aside. Readers like Myers may not get the payoff–he claims that “Johnson’s failure to understand [his character’s] faith is such that when he uses it to end the novel on an uplifting note, the reader feels nothing.” However, I hardly think that a watery Hallmark-word like “uplifting” properly connotes the weight, pathos, and sheer pain that Johnson conveys and addresses at the end of the book (Myers’s shallow diagnosis leads me to believe he merely skimmed the novel). Ethics of literary criticism aside, the real triumph of Tree of Smoke is simply that Johnson manages to comment in a new way on a subject that, by 2007, had been done to death. Who knew that we needed another story about the Vietnam War? Denis Johnson, apparently. Read the book for yourself. Very highly recommended. […]

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  2. Tree of Smoke is not simply bad— it’s embarrassingly bad. It makes a total mockery of the National Book Award. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Jesus’ Son— when D.J. stuck to what he knew, AA meetings and burnouts, he was a decent writer. But to anyone who actually knows anyth8ng about the military, T.O.S. is fatuous nonsense. From the very first pages it’s just one absurdity after another. Example: DJ has his main character “borrow” someone’s rifle so he can go kill a monkey. The idea that soldiers/sailors can just roam about military bases with unauthorized weapons killing shit is laughable. This is just one of maybe a hundred examples I could offer. The whole book is riddled with cliches. The biggest of which is the nihilistic stoned mad soldiers. We get it— you saw Apocalypse Now— now let’s come back to reality. I could go on and on. It’s sad how easy it is to fool people.

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  3. In retrospect, my tone in the quote above is a tad too strident. I apologize. I still think it’s a bad book, but I don’t like being obnoxious. I had a bit too much coffee yesterday.

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    1. LOL…No, I hear you. I don’t think you came off as obnoxious at all. I haven’t reread Tree since it came out in paperback…so that was over a decade ago. I often get addicted to long novels when I feel the prose. I mean, I could’ve been way off in my estimation of the novel. I think I read more critically now than I did then too, although that could be self-delusion.
      –Ed

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